Politics & Policy

Where Huckabee Goes from Here

He says he's in until it's over. Not likely.

‘The nomination is not secured until somebody has 1,191 delegates,” Mike Huckabee said last night in Little Rock after losing primary battles to John McCain in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. “That has not yet happened. . . and if there are these calls to say, ‘Let’s just call it off,’ that’s a disservice to the people in Texas and Ohio and Pennsylvania and North Carolina and Nebraska and other states and territories who have yet to have the opportunity to vote. So we march on.”

That’s what Huckabee says in public. But inside the Huckabee camp these days, there is a distinct sense of pragmatism about the campaign’s prospects. The time is coming — probably just after the March 4 primary in Texas — when Huckabee, if he cannot produce any more victories, will leave the Republican presidential race.

On Saturday morning, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, I asked a top campaign official what Huckabee would do if he lost Saturday’s contests in Kansas, Louisiana, and Washington State, and then failed to win any of the Potomac primary races on February 12. “We’ll have to talk about it Tuesday night,” he told me. And what would that discussion involve? “We’ll talk about the reasons you stay in versus the reasons you get out. There are no decisions made of, ‘If this happens, we’ll do that, or if that happens, we’ll do this.’ We’ll do what we’ve always done, which is to take a look at this race every couple of days and see where we are.”

At that point, the official wasn’t even guaranteeing that Huckabee would stay in the race past Tuesday. But as it turned out, Huckabee scored big wins Saturday in Kansas and Louisiana, and almost beat McCain in Washington State. The victories gave him a rationale to keep going past the Potomac primaries, whatever happened. But now that he has lost all three of those races, Huckabee is back to answering questions about why he stays in.

The main reasons are that Huckabee can afford to keep going, he thinks he can do well in Texas, and that, as the sole recipient of votes from conservatives unhappy with McCain, his support has actually increased.

Mitt Romney pulled out of the race because did not see the purpose in keeping his extremely expensive campaign going in the face of terrible odds; it would have been impossible to imagine a greatly scaled-down Romney operation, going into primaries on a shoestring. Huckabee, on the other hand, has always operated on a shoestring. In fact, as McCain’s last major opponent, he is positively living large, compared to the campaign’s earliest days. Part of that is because his campaign has displayed a genius for stretching a dollar. Huckabee won Georgia even though he couldn’t afford to purchase TV ads in Atlanta; instead, he bought time in places like Macon. He won Alabama without spending much in Birmingham, opting instead for the less expensive Huntsville. And the campaign just loved twofers. “If we could find a media market that covered two states, we were all over it,” the Huckabee aide told me. “Chattanooga, Fort Smith, Joplin – it’s called bang for your buck.”

There are plenty of small markets in Texas, too, and Huckabee will undoubtedly advertise in them. But the state’s two top markets, Dallas and Houston, reach about half of the Republican primary electorate and are very expensive. Normally, they would be beyond Huckabee’s budget, but the campaign aide told me that “we’ve squirreled away a good amount of money.” When I asked whether Texas would be the place to spend it, he answered yes, leaving the impression that such a campaign would be Huckabee’s last stand.

At the moment, there are no polls that measure a McCain-Huckabee race in the state – one Texas pollster I talked to yesterday said it’s “kind of a weird no man’s land in terms of available data.” Still, at the moment, few people give Huckabee a chance to win. “There are certainly going to be some congressional districts he can be competitive in,” one Texan allied with McCain told me. “But state-wide, no.”

But what if Huckabee were able to win Texas? Even then, he still would not be able to amass enough delegates to beat McCain. In the last few days, Huckabee has conceded that he cannot reach the magic 1,191-delegate number; he simply argues that McCain isn’t there yet, so the campaign should go on. Last week,, the McCain camp was quite diplomatic and patient about Huckabee’s position. But last night, campaign manager Rick Davis sent out a somewhat impatiently-worded memo emphasizing just how impossible Huckabee’s situation is.

“The results from tonight’s primary elections in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., make it mathematically impossible for Governor Huckabee to secure the Republican nomination for president,” Davis wrote. “He now needs 950 delegates to secure the required 1,191. But in the remaining contests there are only 774 delegates available. He would need to win 123 percent of remaining delegates.”

Huckabee got a lot of applause Saturday when, addressing the question of his delegate gap, he said he didn’t major in math, he majored in miracles. But he doesn’t need a math degree to face up to those numbers. And when the figures make their way into the general conversation in Republican political circles, the pressure on Huckabee to withdraw will increase.

Whenever he goes, Huckabee will leave with a stature far higher than when he began the race. He is now a national figure in GOP politics, widely admired as the best natural campaigner in the 2008 field. Good, and perhaps even greater, things await. And it is unlikely that Huckabee wants to do anything in the last days of his campaign to diminish all the gains he has made.

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